On Writing,  publishing

Killing the Sacred Cows of Publishing: You Have It Made When…

This myth has a lot of ugly heads, but I’m going to do my best to wrap them all into one chapter here. And I’m sure I’m going to miss one or two heads at least. But I hope to get the main ones.

So what is this myth exactly? Simply put, writers believe that when one event or another happens, they will have it made. They usually have no idea what “having it made” means exactly, but that’s beside the point for most everyone. And some part of this myth hits all of us at one point or another, and many published writers still carry it in some ways. So I’m going to start with this myth in the early days of writing and work to longer-term writers.

The First Sale Myth

If I Could Just Make That First Sale, I Would Have it Made.

Honestly, you start to realize this is wrong the moment you get the first check for the story or novel. But this myth has so much more to it than just money. You think that suddenly you have it made after a couple of sales, that you don’t need to do as much learning, that your writing is now completely professional level. I have seen this happen with a number of writers who attended workshops here. Once they had a sale or two, they didn’t need to come back for other areas of learning, even though most of the writers who attend here are professional writers who have made numbers of sales and gotten past this myth at this level. I always want to say something to the writer when I hear this, but Kris always just puts a gentle hand on my arm and tells me to let each writer find their own path.

The true danger of this first head of this myth is that the writer suddenly just shuts down learning. Why? My guess is fear that more learning will cause the writer to break something that seems to be working at the moment. Of course it doesn’t work that way. But that’s the best I can figure. I hate to think it’s just the writer ego taking control, but more than likely it is.

The Rejection Myth

Once I make those first few sales the rejections will stop.

Luckily I never fell into this since I had gotten so many rejections so quickly after my poetry sales. But so many writers I have known believed this one for a time. The truth is that rejection is a part of this business. No writer can write something that will fit every book line or every magazine. Just doesn’t work that way. Maybe Stephen King doesn’t get rejected much anymore, but I know that Kris at Pulphouse rejected many stories from different New York Times bestselling writers because they just didn’t fit what we were doing.

Understand that I am a bestselling writer with about one hundred novels in print. And I got a form rejection from Pocket Books, a company I used to edit for and a company I had sold over thirty novels to. I understood that the beginning editor right out of Vassar had no idea who I was. I was publishing books there when she was in grade school. I didn’t take it personally. But I did send the manuscript back to a more senior editor I had worked with before. It wasn’t right for her line either, but I got a nice letter.

I got a form rejection on another novel just last month. It never ends, folks.

This myth is dangerous at times because of the emotional toll it takes on the writer. The expectation is that the writer won’t get rejected, then here comes a rejection, more than likely of a project the writer spent a lot of time and heart on. Emotions will range all over the place, from anger to depression, but often this will cause the writer to slowly stop writing and is one of the reasons some writers quit writing after a number of sales. The realization that rejection never ends is just too much for some poor writer egos to handle.

I’ve Made Sales So I Don’t Have to Work as Hard Myth

Make Sales and Now You Only Have to Do a Few Pages Per Day.

The thinking on this one comes from everywhere. Agents and editors tell writers to slow down all the time, the university system tells writers writing slow creates top fiction (ignoring the reality of the writers they study), and fear takes over writers’ minds so they slow down to make sure the next story is better. It’s an ugly dead-end cycle that kills more writer careers in the early years than can be counted.

So the sales are made and the writer slows down. For some reason, writers think they don’t have to practice, to start off with. Second, for some reason, a normal work ethic has been made into a bad thing in writing. Nora Roberts, Stephen King, James Patterson and so many other major writers all have normal work ethics. They work between six and ten hours per day. Yet this reality does not seem to get down to the early professionals who think that writing one hour a day is hard work. And then wonder why they don’t make a living or more sales.

I think this myth feeds on writers’ fears more than any other. The thinking is that if a writer really works hard on their writing, they actually might write more, and that might not be as good as the first stuff that sold. Some writers (I fought this one) have a deep fear of success and this myth is guaranteed to keep success from happening. Whatever the root cause of this, if you have bought into the one hour a day is enough to work as a professional writer, imagine your doctor only working one hour a day at learning how to treat you. Or your lawyer spending only one hour a day to learn how to defend you in court. If you want to be a professional at an international profession, start realizing you have to work harder than everyone else. If that scares you, go dig ditches or wait tables because you are not cut out to be an internationally-selling writer.

The Continued Sales Myth

I Have Sold Three Novels. My Fourth Novel Will Sell.

Uhhhh, not necessarily. In fact the chances are against you. Ugly truth. The factors involved with selling a 4th novel are these: 1) Your sales numbers must be great, on an upward slant. 2) Your editor must have remained in place and not moved to a new house with a better job. 3) Your publishing company must have remained focused on that type of book and area of publishing for the years it took to publish your first three books. And a dozen other factors.

As I have pounded over and over, writers are people who write, so if you are a real writer who can’t sell the 4th book, you move to a new series, a new name, a new publisher and just keep going. Not really a big deal to a writer. Annoying, sure, and stressful, but to writers not career ending. But to authors, who find being published the most important aspect of their life, who spend all their time focusing on how to promote their last book, this problem will kill their career.

Here comes that writer ego again. The writer will say that the publisher or the agent screwed them and blame anyone but themselves or how publishing works. They will think there is no point in writing another novel, and thus won’t. They would never think of changing their name and starting with a new series because their baby was the first book or series. And so on and so on.

Sadly, most writing careers end in this way. And sadly, this part of the myth combines with the first part of not being willing to keep learning. If the writer, from the beginning, had kept learning their craft and business, it wouldn’t have stopped the publisher dropping them for one reason or another, but it would allow the writer to understand what had happened and keep writing more.

The “I Got An Agent” Myth

If I Could Just Get An Agent My Book Would Sell and I Would Have It Made.

For newer writers, this myth bothers me more than any other. Agents in the mythology of publishing have been built up over the last twenty years to being these magical gods able to take care of writers and their careers and make their books sell at once to top publishers. If you still believe this myth, holy smokes are you in deep trouble. Go back and read all the Sacred Cows posts with Agent in the title. And all the comments. The Sacred Cow tab at the top of this page will get you to all of them.

The problem with this myth is that it stops most writing careers cold, especially writers with unique voices. If the writer believes this myth, they will never offer their book to an editor. I know of many, many writers who have been writing for years and never once, not once, offered their books to anyone who could actually buy and publish them. They have been sending only to agents, and even when they get an agent, the young agent will often have them spend years rewriting the same idea over and over trying to turn it into the next Da Vinci/Harry Potter/Vampire clone. And that can get discouraging to say the least. And kill original stories and original voices.

And at the few conventions I go to now, when a young writer comes up to me all excited about “getting an agent” I ask them who they sold their book to? If they say it hasn’t sold, then I ask them bluntly why they need an agent. Luckily not many beginning writers say that to me anymore. (grin)

If you find yourself in this trap, start mailing your books to editors. (Yeah, I know, I know, the guidelines. If you worry about rules as a writer, you are doomed anyway, might as well just stay in the agent trap.)

My Agent Will Take Care of Me Myth

I Have An Agent. I Don’t Need to Learn Business. I Have It Made.

This myth again has been covered many times in all the agent chapters in this book. Again, go to the top of the page and reread all the chapters with agent in the title, plus all the comments.

This myth flat kills a writer’s careers, and heaven-only-knows how much money is stolen from writers by agents. Now most agents are very solid and reputable, but there is no organization that watches over agents and anyone with a business card can become an agent in ten minutes.

But yet over and over I have heard writers say, “I got into writing because I hate business.” Being a writer is a business. If you hate business, you hate writing. You can’t pull the two apart no matter how much your English professor told you that you could.

A couple basic factors to realize about agents if you want one to take care of you: 1) Agents are employees of writers. You are the boss. 2) Agents don’t care about any one writer, only what publishers think of them. 3) Agents have cash flow issues as well and can borrow your money at will if they need it because you don’t even know it’s there.

But even with all that, writers are excited to let agents take care of them, run their careers, handle all their money, tell them what to sign, and so on and so on…

If you are a writer who wants to last more than three to ten books in this business, you must learn the business and take control of it yourself. If you are still letting your agent handle all your money and all the paperwork that goes with that money before you see it, you are playing a very deadly game. Most of the money will come through just fine, but you won’t know about the money that doesn’t.

Some writers even take this myth so far as to give an agent, a total stranger, power of attorney to sign their contracts. Head-shakingly stupid.

This is a dangerous myth at all levels. And I see no overall solution on the horizon. Each writer must learn to take care of their own business and learn quickly.

I Got a Bestseller So I Have it Made Myth

My Book Hit a Bestseller List So I Have it Made

Nope. I’ve been on dozens of bestseller lists around the world over the years. Sure, the money is nice, but it doesn’t last, and past that, as a writer, all that being a bestseller does is allow you to have a new first name. For example, I am Bestselling Writer Dean Wesley Smith. Some writers even put the name of the place that they were a bestseller. For example, I could put USA Today Bestselling Writer Dean Wesley Smith. Now that’s just silly and granted it might makes a little difference in sales, sure, but past that it doesn’t help much.

When you hit one of the top lists with your own book, the money can get pretty nice. (This one also fits with the “I Got a Huge Advance, I Have it Made.”) But remember, in the current world of publishing, the produce model still functions. That means the sales hit quick and then the book is done, tossed out of the system like so much bad lettuce. So the money hits quick and then is also done. And then you have to repeat the process with your next book. And so on. Writers who believe that they have it made because they hit a bestseller list are called one thing: Broke. And combine that sudden influx of money with a writer who thinks they need to have someone take care of them, such as an agent, and the bankruptcy comes even faster.

Publishing Will Remain the Same Myth

I Started Selling Five Years Ago So What I Was Doing Then Should Work Fine Now.

This is a more advanced writer myth. And I hear it a great deal from the writers who haven’t had more than one or two major crashes in their careers. All of us who have been around for more than twenty years know this is silly. Publishing changes constantly, and often the changes clear out an entire group of writers, just leaving them behind or pushing them aside. The changes going on right now are even faster than normal and major. And those of us who understand at a deep level that publishing constantly changes are moving in lots of directions to stay with or ahead of the changes.

But so many writers I know are not moving at all right now, just focusing on what worked five years ago. That way is career death I’m afraid. I had one writer say to me last month, “You said…” I asked when I had taught the writer that fact. The writer said in a workshop seven years ago. I said I was right then, but for today’s world that no longer applies. The writer just couldn’t grasp that a major business like publishing could change so fast.

But alas, it does change fast, very fast. Kris and I started teaching a marketing workshop just over 18 months ago. The marketing workshop we will teach this spring is so, so different from the one we taught 18 months ago. Sure, some elements, some basics, some craft, some history is the same, but what to do with those basics, how to use the history and the craft is so very, very different, it might seem like two different professions. That’s how fast publishing is changing right now.

Some Extras That Are Not As Common But Just as Deadly

— I Got a Great Review So I Have it Made

This one kills writers with huge egos. And the moment a bad review comes in, which they will, the writer is dead. If you believe the good ones, you have to believe the bad ones as well. And that way lies madness. Just don’t read them. Have a friend read them for pull quotes for your future books.

—I Optioned My Book to Hollywood So I Have it Made

I watched one writer get an option, quit his day job and start living on credit cards because he was convinced his book was going to be a movie at any moment. He never wrote again. The only time you count money from Hollywood is AFTER THE CHECK HAS CLEARED. Until then it is a joke. Ignore it.

—My Editor Takes Great Care of Me So I Have it Made.

Yup, right up to the moment the editor gets downsized or moves to a new publisher for a new job. Your contract is with the publisher and your new editor might hate your currant book. It’s called being orphaned and if you ever put too much trust in one editor, you are doomed if they leave.

—I Won a Major Award, I Have it Made

Wow, I wish this one was the truth. I’ve won my share and been nominated for a ton more. And Kris has major awards all over her office gathering dust. If this was true, we would have a lot more money than we have. Darn it anyhow.


Publishing is full of major and minor myths. The myths that surround the thinking of “I Have It Made” are very deadly to long-term careers. All of us find ourselves dealing with one or more of these myths at times. The key is to notice you are in one and clear it out quickly.

The most deadly signs you are in a “I Have It Made” myth are:

— You don’t think you have much to learn anymore. You have stopped going to listen to those farther down the road than you are at conventions and conferences.

— You feel you should be taken care of by your agent or editor. And the thought of not having them take care of you makes you angry. You don’t want to deal with your own money.

— You think you are too good to be rejected.

—You only write one hour a day even though you don’t work a day job.

— You have broken into writing and are selling, you don’t have to keep up with the publishing industry changes. And right now you are not exploring putting your backlist up electronically because someone else should do that for you.

And the biggest sign of all that you are deep in this myth is when you hear yourself say the sentence: “I don’t need to because…”

I fought through a few of these myths myself over the years. And I’m sure I have traces of others I don’t want to face still hanging around this office. But if I can get through them, so can you. Trust me, to have a long-term writing career, you have to.


Copyright 2010 Dean Wesley Smith

Okay, I admit it, I had issues at first with putting in a tip jar in the Magic Bakery. It was one of the “I have it made, why do I need to support my writing with tips.” A minor myth, sure, but still one that took me a few days and some talk with Kris to get past.

And  speaking of the Magic Bakery, this chapter is now part of my inventory in my bakery. (Confused on that, read the Killing the Sacred Cows of Publishing post about making money with writing.) I’m giving you this small slice as a sample. I’m giving you a taste, but not selling any of the pie.

If you feel this helped you in any way, toss a tip into the tip jar on the way out of the Magic Bakery.

If you can’t afford to donate, please feel free to pass this chapter along to others who might get some help from it.

And I would like to thank all the fine folks who have donated over this last year. Once this book is done, I will send you a copy. The donations and the comments both after the posts and privately are really keeping me going on this. Thanks!

Thanks, Dean